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WEEKEND ESCAPE : The Perfect Catalina 'Weekend' . . . at Midweek : Visitors who avoid Saturday-Sunday crowds can have choice of hotels and save money, too

August 30, 1992|JOHN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Johnson is a reporter for the San Fernando Valley edition of The Times

AVALON — Our 12-year-old son had just left for Boy Scout camp in the Sierra, his third getaway of the summer. So far, the most thrilling summertime adventure for my wife and me had occurred the day the carwash substituted Pina Colada air freshener for our usual Country Spice.

We realized we needed a vacation of our own.

Because we both love the sea, we chose Santa Catalina Island. And because I have a pathological dislike of crowds (I would, for instance, rather be entombed in the Black Hole of Calcutta than go to Disneyland on a Saturday), we decided to go midweek rather than on the weekend, unlike our first visit to the island two summers ago.

We discovered that we couldn't have picked a better time for our trip: This year, the number of midweek visitors to the island has dropped by almost 10%. The Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau speculates that that is because people are trying to save money by sacrificing weeklong vacations in favor of cheaper weekend excursions.

Whatever the reason, for the three days we wanted to spend there the first week in August, we found that we could pick and choose from hotels, some of which were offering midweek discounts of up to 45%.

One Wednesday at 7 in the morning, we boarded a Catalina Express boat in San Pedro that was about as comfortable and efficient as a profitable little no-frills commuter airline. It was clean and there were plenty of seats, though nothing luxurious.

The water during our 75-minute crossing was as smooth as lime gelatin and the boat sliced it effortlessly, churning up a white, frothy topping that spread out in a widening band behind us.

After landing, we took a cab a quarter-mile into the center of town and plopped ourselves down, bags in hand, at the Busy Bee restaurant near the pier. With its weathered wood siding it looked like the kind of place locals would go. We had Cajun sausage and eggs. The only other customers were two middle-aged women playing double solitaire, bloody Marys at their elbows.

"Ah," my wife, Peggy, said. "This is just how I pictured it."

In the ensuing days, we would say the same thing many times over.

With its narrow twisted streets, small gift shops with overhanging balconies and pots of flowers swaying in the mild breeze, Avalon reminded me of the English villages I visited 20 years ago. On the busy weekends, this small scale can seem claustrophobic. There can be a substantial wait just to tee off at the lone nine-hole golf course on the island or to eat at a restaurant. But during our visit we encountered none of that.

The one problem we did have was of a different nature: We had made advance reservations at the Hotel St. Lauren on Beacon Street because we'd heard it was a couple of blocks up the hill from the main shorefront road, and I had thought it would be quieter than the hotels "downtown." But as we checked in, we decided it was farther from the beach than we liked. So after the first night there, we transferred down the hill to the Hotel Villa Portofino, just across Crescent Avenue from the water.

Though the rooms at the St. Lauren and the Portofino are comfortable, the visitor should not expect a hotel experience on a par with the grand hotels of Europe. The rooms are small and not lavishly furnished. There are no phones in the rooms at the Portofino, which Peggy and I liked very much.

Our room at the Portofino looked over the ocean, and because of that it was expensive--$170 a night. But to attract midweek business, the hotel was also offering rooms usually priced at $105 a night for $75.

Avalon is a densely packed community set in a small cove, and we were able to walk anywhere we wanted to go. For those who must have wheels, however, the island has accumulated a swarm of golf carts that buzz up and down the streets like busy insects. The carts rent for about $30 an hour, with the third hour free during the week.

At the outset, I was of two minds about how to spend my time: I was sorely tempted to flop down on the beach with "Nutcracker," a true-crime book. At the same time, I thought maybe I should try something new--and maybe even a little dangerous.

I opted for adventure. I had never scuba-dived before, but here, as it turned out, that is no real good reason not to. Catalina Divers Supply offers an introductory dive for beginners costing $85, and I nervously signed up. Before putting me in the water in a little roped-off area near the Avalon Theatre, instructor David Lieberman made me read a typewritten page of material and then quizzed me on it.

"How often do you clear your ears while descending?" he asked.

"With every breath," I answered confidently. Tests I'm good at. Actual diving, though, was another thing altogether.

"Don't worry," Lieberman assured me. "You'll feel more comfortable in the water."

But how to get in? Dressed in a wet suit, air tank and wearing a weight belt that I was sure would give me a hernia, I could barely walk, let alone swim.

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